*The Electrical Experimenter,* April 1916
Voice-Activated Typewriter of 1916
by Darryl Rehr
Are journalists ever guilty of hyperbole? Though we would like to be kind to the hacks who bring us word of the world's events, we must face facts and read what they write with the proverbial grain of salt.
For a typewriter collector, the image of the Phonoscribe seen on the cover of the April 1916 issue of The Electrical Experimenter was tantalizing, to say the least. The cover shows a relaxed businessman speaking casually into a microphone as his voice-activated typewriter dutifully types out the text on his desk. In 1998, when such complex technology has yet to be realized on a commonplace level, we are astounded to see that there was a version in the works as early as 1916.
Unfortunately, the fine print inside *The Electrical Experimenter* reveals a device much different than the one on the cover. It was the work of a Brooklyn, New York, man named John D. Flowers, and according to the magazine, it apparently was never intended to type a letter itself.
Flowers, it seems, was fascinated by the workings of human speech. In earlier experiments with voice- operated typewriters, tuned reeds were used to discriminate among the different sounds of the spoken word. Unfortunately, the reeds worked reasonably well for vowels but not well with consonants. That's a pretty big problem in an alphabet in which consonants are the large majority.
The inventor claims to have found the problem in the normal spoken voice. The vocal cords, he concluded, produced too many irrelevant overtones. The solution was to utilize a whispered voice. Flowers told us that the shape of a sound was identical whether spoken at a normal tone or at a whisper. So, his voice-operated writing machine (we'll learn later why it wasn't a typewriter) depended on whispers so all those extraneous vocal sounds could be ignored.
Flowers hooked up a microphone to a string galvanometer, a device which produced a wiggle in a string when electric current was applied. A light shining through the string exposed film moving in a camera to produce a photographic record of the sounds spoken into the mike (whispered sounds, remember). In theory, it was not unlike the process that later made movies into talkies.
Running through a number of different speakers, Flowers produced a definitive dictionary of his electrically generated Phonetic Alphabet. Each letter of the English alphabet had a corresponding squiggle, which was unerringly produced by his recording apparatus when anyone whispered into the microphone.
To turn this idea into a voice-operated writing machine, Flowers proposed a wonderfully Byzantine array of mirrors, lenses, and resonator circuits coupled to a microphone and selenium cell, which controlled a pen writing on a revolving drum. When someone spoke into the microphone, Flowers' phonetic alphabet would be written on the drum. Thus, his voice-operated machine.
But wait == do we sense a lack of closure here? What good does this do us in the real world? To quote from The Electrical Experimenter:
"Hence, if this was to be used commercially or otherwise, it would be necessary for those making use of such a 'phonoscribe' (if we may so term this device), to learn this alphabet or else to employ a transcriber who could read it."
So, in the end, what has the Experimenter's cover led us to? A dictation machine that produces a line of squiggles that can only be read by somebody who wants to learn a whole new alphabet! And this at a time when the boss routinely spoke into his Dictaphone or Ediphone for his secretary to hear and transcribe with no additional training! Underwood, by the way, had a hand in financing Mr. Flowers' work. One wonders at what point the company cut him off.
(((bruces remarks: In 1916, "Electrical Experimenter" was published by Hugo Gernsback. Gernsback had not yet formally invented the science fiction pulp == he would launch AMAZING STORIES in 1926 == but he frequently larded "Electrical Experimenter" with his proto-SF "Munchausen stories" such as "Thought Transmission on Mars" (1916) and "Martian Amusements" (1916). So much for journalistic hyperbole in the business machine biz. However, when it comes to pinpoint accuracy about off-the-wall office equipment, few if any can match Darryl Rehr, who literally wrote the book with his invaluable "Antique Typewriters & Office Collectibles Identification and Value Guide" (Collector Books 1997, ISBN 0-89145-757-7.)))
Darryl Rehr (email@example.com)